November 25, 2009

Global Warming, Fantastic Hypocrites, and the Fatal Corporatist Problem

Part I: Bad-Faith Arguments and Highly Questionable Actors

I'll be addressing additional issues related to the discussion in Part I, as well as analyzing one very significant problem raised by the global warming debate, a problem that comes up in many different contexts. Before getting to all that, let's consider the case of Al Gore, not only with regard to his own history on environmental issues but with an eye to the broader principle of which Gore is a powerful example.

We can begin with this article by Joshua Frank: "Nobel Gore?" The subtitle is: "A Prime Time Hypocrite." As you may gather from the title, Frank's article dates from October 2007, shortly after Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Given Gore's actual history on environmental issues, we can place that Prize, with substantial justification, in the same category as Obama's Peace Prize: "Depraved, Obscene Absurdities."

In what follows, I urge you to keep in mind that it doesn't matter whether you (or I) agree with Gore's views on global warming and climate change. The essential point is an entirely different one: in terms of what Gore himself proclaims to be his grave concerns, he's a fantastic hypocrite, both in general and in connection with many specifics. Frank begins with the longstanding, close relationship between the Gores (father and son) and Armand Hammer and Occidental Oil. Among other things, that relationship brought Gore Jr. "monster campaign contributions," as Frank puts it.

Frank goes on:
Oil companies during the 20th Century, reports the Center for Public Integrity, "have tried unsuccessfully to obtain control of two oil fields owned and operated by the federal government: the Teapot Dome field in Casper, Wyoming, and the Elk Hills field in Bakersfield, California."

When Clinton and Gore took office in 1992, that was about to change. Perhaps only outdone by George W. Bush's connections to Big Oil, Al Gore pressed President Clinton to approve handing over these public lands to the oil companies. The land, managed by the Navy, had held emergency oil reserves since 1912.

It took five years of lobbying on behalf of Big Oil, but Gore and Occidental were victori[ous]. In the fall of 1997 the Energy Department sold 47,000 acres of the Elk Hill reserve to Occidental.

Continues The Center for Public Integrity:
"It was the largest privatization of federal property in U.S. history, one that tripled Occidental's U.S. oil reserves overnight. Although the Energy Department was required to assess the likely environmental consequences of the proposed sale, it didn't. Instead it hired a private company, ICF Kaiser International, Incorporated, to complete the assessment. The general chairman of Gore's presidential campaign, Tony Coelho, sat on the board of directors.

"The very same day the Elk Hills sale was announced, Gore delivered a speech to the White House Conference on Climate Change on the "terrifying prospect" of global warming, a problem he blamed on the unchecked use of fossil fuels such as oil."
The facts themselves are so damning that commentary is rendered almost entirely superfluous.

Frank has more examples of the same general phenomenon, and I suggest you consult the details. The issue that deserves emphasis is this: in all the examples that Frank provides, the central dynamic is the same. Already entrenched, vastly powerful, nominally "private" interests have close alliances with individuals in critical, influential government positions. These alliances result in government power being used to the further benefit of those "private" interests. The parties involved will deluge the public with affirmations of acting in "the public interest," seeking only to benefit "the people," and all the usual boilerplate PR. But that's all it is: public relations whose sole purpose is to drug unreflective and/or uninformed Americans into passive, unprotesting acceptance. The bottom line (in more ways than one) is always that the powerful and wealthy become more powerful and wealthy -- and as for "the public"? Except for very rare instances of public protest and unrest on a scale so huge that it threatens their hold on power, the ruling class couldn't care less. That's the truth, which very few people are interested in.

The further significance of this dynamic is that this goes on all the time, in almost every industry and occupation. We are now witnessing the same phenomenon with regard to the "health care reform" legislation. This is the way business is conducted in America, and the way it has been conducted for more than a century.

And that takes us back to when this dynamic was begun to be put firmly in place. Most progressives today know very little about the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, or about what actually happened during that period as opposed to the mythologies that many people prefer to believe. Those who do know apparently don't want anyone else to understand the truth of this particular history.

I've written several articles about the Progressive Era and this issue specifically. I direct your attention to one of those essays: "Psst -- While You Were Gibbering, the Ruling Class Rigged the Game and Won Everything." Much of that discussion centers on an invaluable work by Gabriel Kolko (and not so by the way, Kolko is and was when he wrote the book very leftwing in his own political orientation), The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916.

I introduced Kolko's book with these comments:
Kolko's work hit the world of historians and of historical analysis with tremendous force. He performed significant original research -- and the results of his research upended what had come to be accepted as the conventional narrative of the Progressive era. Much additional research since the publication of Kolko's book has confirmed the accuracy of his analysis. At one time, it would have been somewhat understandable for progressives to regard the opening decades of the twentieth century as a testament to the "benevolent" powers of government, operating to constrain rapacious business practices on behalf of "the common man" and "the common good." Today, nearly half a century after Kolko's book was first published in 1963, there is no excuse whatsoever for people who are politically active and who regard themselves as at all knowledgeable about political history to be so profoundly in error about this critical period. Yet today's liberals and progressives appear to understand next to nothing about what actually happened during those years.
As I stressed before, there is one sentence from the Kolko excerpts I offered that is of key significance: "It was not a coincidence that the results of progressivism were precisely what many major business interests desired." "Ripped from today's headlines," as the saying goes. Hence, Kolko's title: The Triumph of Conservatism.

Here are some passages from Kolko. Once again, note how strikingly familiar all this is:
The American political experience during the Progressive Era was conservative, and this conservatism profoundly influenced American society's response to the problems of industrialization. The nature of the economic process in the United States, and the peculiar cast within which industrialism was molded, can only be understood by examining the political structure. Progressive politics is complex when studied in all of its aspects, but its dominant tendency on the federal level was to functionally create, in a piecemeal and haphazard way that was later made more comprehensive, the synthesis of politics and economics I have labeled "political capitalism."

The varieties of rhetoric associated with progressivism were as diverse as its followers, and one form of this rhetoric involved attacks on businessmen -- attacks that were often framed in a fashion that has been misunderstood by historians as being radical. But at no point did any major political tendency dealing with the problem of big business in modern society ever try to go beyond the level of high generalization and translate theory into concrete economic programs that would conflict in a fundamental way with business supremacy over the control of wealth. It was not a coincidence that the results of progressivism were precisely what many major business interests desired.

Ultimately businessmen defined the limits of political intervention, and specified its major form and thrust. They were able to do so not merely because they were among the major initiators of federal intervention in the economy, but primarily because no politically significant group during the Progressive Era really challenged their conception of political intervention. The basic fact of the Progressive Era was the large area of consensus and unity among key business leaders and most political factions on the role of the federal government in the economy. There were disagreements, of course, but not on fundamentals. The overwhelming majorities on votes for basic progressive legislation is testimony to the near unanimity in Congress on basic issues.


This identification of political and key business leaders with the same set of social values -- ultimately class values -- was hardly accidental, for had such a consensus not existed the creation of political capitalism would have been most unlikely. Political capitalism was based on the functional utility of major political and business leaders. The business and political elites knew each other, went to the same schools, belonged to the same clubs, married into the same families, shared the same values -- in reality, formed that phenomenon which has lately been dubbed The Establishment.
Since I devote so much time here to myth-busting, I will offer a further development along the same path. This one may be similarly discomfiting to many progressives, for it concerns the New Deal period. I urge you to appreciate why I go through these exercises: I do it because we cannot fully understand our present, dire circumstances unless we appreciate how we got here. And until and unless we understand that, we cannot figure out to alter the problems that so bedevil us. If we want genuine "change" -- as I certainly do, and as I know many readers do as well -- we must do our utmost to ascertain the truth, however uncomfortable certain parts of that truth may be to some of our cherished beliefs. And I assure you that my own journey, over many years, saw many, and sometimes most, of my own preferred convictions completely overturned.

Another of my essays, "The Elites Who Rule Us," dealt with the same dynamics. My primary focus in the "Dominion Over the World" series (of which that essay is only one part) was on foreign policy, but the mechanisms involved apply very broadly. I offered some passages from Christopher Layne's very valuable book, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present. Layne's focus is also on foreign policy; again, see the connections to other aspects of our political-economic system:
In his book Myths of Empire, Jack Snyder talks about elites "hijacking" the state. This fails to make the point quite strongly enough. Dominant elites do not hijack the state; they are the state. The United States pursued hegemony because that grand strategy has served the interests of the dominant elites that have formed the core of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since at least the late 1930s, when the New Deal resulted in the domestic political triumph of what Thomas Ferguson calls "multinational liberalism." At the core of the multinational liberal coalition were large capital-intensive corporations that looked to overseas markets and outward-looking investment banks. This coalition displaced the so-called system of 1896, which was organized around labor-intensive industries that favored economic nationalism and opposed strategic internationalism.

The multinational liberal coalition that cemented its hold on power during the New Deal had its roots deep in the Eastern establishment: it also included the national media, important foundations, the big Wall Street law firms, and organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations. This coalition favored economic and political Open Doors and the strategic internationalism that accompanied them. Although the bipartisan consensus among the U.S. foreign policy establishment favoring strategic internationalism and U.S. hegemony that was forged some six decades ago has occasionally been tested -- notably during the Vietnam War -- it has proved remarkably durable. Unless it undergoes a Damascene-like intellectual conversion, as long as the present foreign policy elite remains in power the United States will remain wedded to a hegemonic grand strategy. It probably will take a major domestic political realignment -- perhaps triggered by setbacks abroad or a severe economic crisis at home -- to bring about a change in American grand strategy.
When I reread this passage recently, one sentence leapt out at me in connection with today's events in the economic realm: "At the core of the multinational liberal coalition were large capital-intensive corporations that looked to overseas markets and outward-looking investment banks." If you want to understand one aspect of the continuing economic devastation (which the Obama administration is doing nothing to alter as far as "the public" is concerned, for the elites continue to accumulate ungraspable amounts of wealth), read Mike Whitney on our relations with China. I had planned to write a separate entry about Whitney's article, with this title: "Why the Ruling Class Wants to Go to China: They Already Own Everything Here."

Whitney provides a concluding paragraph that explains that title of mine:
Summary: Geithner and Co. see the US economy languishing in a low-grade Depression for the foreseeable future. Thus, Wall Street is planning a major shift in its base-of-operations to Asia. This is the real reason behind Obama's trip to China. There's no truth to the rumor that US policymakers give a hoot about "currency manipulation" or the ongoing trouncing of the American worker. China's "dollar-peg" essentially serves the interests of the giant multinational corporations and Wall Street speculators who own the media, the courts, the congress, the White House and most of the country.
Read Whitney for the explanation as to how the China connection will work. Again: you, the "ordinary" American, figure nowhere in these calculations, except to provide your labor and even your life as required.

To return to Gore and global warming: with these general background issues in mind, it becomes a revealing postscript to consider a New York Times story from earlier this month. Here is some of the factual background:
Former Vice President Al Gore thought he had spotted a winner last year when a small California firm sought financing for an energy-saving technology from the venture capital firm where Mr. Gore is a partner.

The company, Silver Spring Networks, produces hardware and software to make the electricity grid more efficient. It came to Mr. Gore’s firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital providers, looking for $75 million to expand its partnerships with utilities seeking to install millions of so-called smart meters in homes and businesses.

Mr. Gore and his partners decided to back the company, and in gratitude Silver Spring retained him and John Doerr, another Kleiner Perkins partner, as unpaid corporate advisers.

The deal appeared to pay off in a big way last week, when the Energy Department announced $3.4 billion in smart grid grants. Of the total, more than $560 million went to utilities with which Silver Spring has contracts. Kleiner Perkins and its partners, including Mr. Gore, could recoup their investment many times over in coming years.
The story offers further details about Gore's business activities, and about the wealth he has accumulated since leaving office (which is fairly staggering: "Mr. Gore’s spokeswoman would not give a figure for his current net worth, but the scale of his wealth is evident in a single investment of $35 million in Capricorn Investment Group, a private equity fund started by his friend Jeffrey Skoll, the first president of eBay."). And Gore provides the predictable explanation of his investments:
In an e-mail message this week, he said his investment activities were consistent with his public advocacy over decades.

“I have advocated policies to promote renewable energy and accelerate reductions in global warming pollution for decades, including all of the time I was in public service,” Mr. Gore wrote. “As a private citizen, I have continued to advocate the same policies. Even though the vast majority of my business career has been in areas that do not involve renewable energy or global warming pollution reductions, I absolutely believe in investing in ways that are consistent with my values and beliefs. I encourage others to invest in the same way.”
To focus this discussion on the issue that concerns me, consider two further statements from the article. This one: "Mr. Gore is not a lobbyist, and he has never asked Congress or the administration for an earmark or policy decision that would directly benefit one of his investments."

And consider this, in response to a critical questioner at a Congressional hearing: '"And, Congresswoman,' he added, 'if you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don’t know me.'"

The article presents much of this in the typical left-right, us-them framework; the writer refers to "Critics, mostly on the political right and among global warming skeptics...," and "Ms. Blackburn, who echoed some of the criticism of Mr. Gore that has swirled in conservative blogs and radio talk shows," for example. I strongly urge you to set that aside, and to decline to be trapped by the standard method of analysis. I also emphasize that insofar as the problem of corporatism (what Kolko calls "political capitalism") is concerned, the right has as little appreciation of these dynamics as many progressives. I talked about the related failures of both right and left on this question in the opening of this article. Conservatives generally speak of the "free market" as if such a market completely independent of government has existed for much of our history and still exists today, at least to some significant extent. But as Kolko and other writers have shown in great detail, nothing could be farther from the truth.

What I want you to reflect upon is Gore's statement concerning the investments he makes as "a private citizen," and on the NYT observation that Gore "has never asked Congress or the administration for an earmark or policy decision that would directly benefit one of his investments." On the latter point: Gore doesn't need to "ask" explicitly. He has relationships with many people in government and Congress; they know about Gore and his investments. He doesn't need to tell them anything at all. Those in government understand completely which policies will favor the investments made by Gore (as well as many other individuals of their acquaintance), and which will not.

And Gore himself engages in a singular equivocation. In one sense, he is now "a private citizen" -- but that fact has nothing whatsoever to do with what is going on here. The critical fact is that it is the intersection of government and "private" business that is providing a huge boon to Gore's financial well-being. Remember this:
The deal appeared to pay off in a big way last week, when the Energy Department announced $3.4 billion in smart grid grants. Of the total, more than $560 million went to utilities with which Silver Spring has contracts. Kleiner Perkins and its partners, including Mr. Gore, could recoup their investment many times over in coming years.
This is one deal we happen to know about; how many similar deals are there that we'll never hear about? And not just involving Gore and not only in the energy field -- what about all the people with something of Gore's history and connections, and what about every other field of economic activity?

And when, as just one example, the government hands out $3.4 billion in "smart grid grants," have they targeted that investment in the best possible ways, as determined by genuinely disinterested parties? We'll never know that, either -- because government grants of this and every other kind are never made by disinterested parties. I repeat a point I have often made before:
[F]rom the first historic forms of the State, the State has always formed and will always form alliances with certain individuals and segments of society -- to which the government bureaucrats will provide favors and special dispensations, and to the severe disadvantage of those individuals and groups that are not so favored. ... [O]ur contemporary tribalists believe, without any history or evidence whatsoever to support the claim, that if only members of their tribe were in charge, they would act in saintly and disinterested ways, and they would be uniformly non-venal, non-self-seeking, and non-human. Good luck with that. It has never happened and it never will, barring a fundamental transformation of what it means to be human.
It may be that Gore is sincere in his beliefs, and that his sincerity and honesty are reflected in his investments. But we will never have anything close to sufficient information to make that determination. If you are prepared to simply take his word on this question, or the word of numerous other people who reap massive windfalls from particular decisions and policies of government -- if you are prepared to set aside every issue and question set forth above (all of which could and have been expanded to many books, with endless examples of the same general phenomenon) -- then you are missing every issue of importance.

The complex, intricate operations of our corporatist system, of the dizzyingly numerous interconnections between "private" business and government, are the bedrock on which policy decisions are made in every area. If you look to government to solve the problem of global warming and climate change, however you may conceive that problem, it is this system that you are trusting to make the "best" judgments and the "best" investments -- with, it should always be remembered, your money.

So the question for you is: Do you trust this system? Do you? I would offer one further point: the degree to which you think global warming is a genuine crisis requiring urgent action, is the precise degree to which you should trust this system even less. If you think the entire globe faces a frightening crisis of truly unprecedented proportions, do you trust a system where decisions are made on the basis of friendships, alliances, connections, "influence" and doing "favors" for those one prefers, for whatever reason? No matter how sincere some individuals may be, do you trust a system which invites and encourages the participation of people who aren't sincere in any measurable degree, but are primarily and sometimes solely concerned with increasing their own wealth and power?

And I still have more to say on this subject. Next time for that...